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Two Good Books for Questioning Christians

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Guest Post by Karuna Gal

Bruce often directs questioning Christians to read books by Bart Ehrman. I wanted to suggest a couple of objective and scholarly books that a questioning Christian might also find useful. Both these books have never gone out of print and are available on Amazon, Kindle, and through bookstores. Your library may carry them, too. One of the books is about the historical Jesus and the other talks about millennialist and messianic groups.

When I was still going to church I would buy books about Christianity, and after I read them I would donate them to my church’s library. There was one that I couldn’t bear to give away, though. I found it when I was going through my bookshelves recently. It’s called The Changing Faces of Jesus by Geza Vermes, and it was published in 2000. (By the way, Bart Ehrman has an admiring post about Vermes on his website.)

Geza Vermes was a great scholar who wrote about the Dead Sea Scrolls and the historical Jesus. Vermes had a remarkable life. He was born in Hungary to Jewish parents. His parents converted to Catholicism for safety when Nazism was rising, but in spite of that, they were sent to concentration camps where they died. He survived and at one point became a Catholic priest. But eventually he left Catholicism and returned to Judaism.

He did an important translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls into English. And because of his Jewish origins, education, and experience as a practicing Christian at one point in his life, he was uniquely suited to be an expert on the historical Jesus. He wrote a number of books about Jesus, including this one.

In “The Changing Faces of Jesus” Vermes begins with an examination of how Jesus is depicted in the Gospel of John. Then he works his way back through the images of Jesus in Paul, in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the Synoptic Gospels (Luke, Mark, and Matthew). Finally, Vermes makes a pretty solid case about who the real Jesus was “beneath the Gospels.” I also liked how Vermes shows that Jesus was one of many Jewish miracle workers and messianic figures of his era, and Jesus wasn’t as original as he’s made out to be.

Vermes also has an epilogue at the end of the book about a dream he had after he finished writing the book. It’s my favorite part of the book, and, no, I’m not going to tell you why. You will have to read the book yourself and find out. The book is well written and easy for laypeople to understand.

The second book that I want to add to the list is When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. (In an earlier guest post I mentioned that
this particular book dealt the death blow to my Christian faith.) Written by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, it was published in 1956. It first gives a historical overview of how messianic and millennialist groups, even when their messiahs don’t show up, or the world doesn’t end at the appointed times, often continue to carry on with their beliefs intact and even strengthened. The authors also follow a contemporary group of Americans who believed that superior beings from another planet were coming to take them to a higher planet, due to the group’s “higher density” compared to other Earthlings. Even though that event did not happen on the predicted day, some of the group stayed together and kept believing. Here’s a great quote from the beginning of the book:

A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point. We have all experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief. We are familiar with the variety of ingenious defenses with which people protect their convictions, managing to keep them unscathed through the most devastating attacks.

I hope other people will recommend solidly researched, objective, and interesting books for those who are questioning their Christian faith.

Happy reading and healthy questioning!

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    I think the crossing out of ‘admiring post’ in reference Bart Ehrman gives the impression he wasn’t impressed by Vermes, whilst quite clearly the reverse is true. I assume this was an error on your part. The books look very interesting.

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      I clicked the Ehrman link and it changed to an underline. I suspect the crossing out is a website issue, and not intended as a statement.

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Thank your, Karuna. I think it particularly interesting that “When Prophecy Falls” was written in the 1950s, after another kind of Messianism—the cult of Hitler—brought about the Holocaust and a terrible war and another cult—McCarthyism— was sweeping the US.

    • Avatar
      Karuna Gal

      Hi, MJ! Yes, messianic cults can be destructive. The thing that links them all, no matter what type they are, is that stubborn, blind willfulness of their adherents against reality and reason. The first disciples of Jesus continued to insist on his resurrection and return, in spite of the sad reality that he was dead. They had too much invested in him and couldn’t face the disappointment of their hopes. “When Prophecy Fails” shows how this sort of thing happens again and again throughout history.

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    Thank you for recommending these books – I will see if my library system has them available.

    I wonder about QAnon and the Cult of Trump – how long will they continue to thrive?

    • Avatar
      Karuna Gal

      ObstacleChick – You’re welcome! You will enjoy both books. As far as your question: All I can say is, following Buddhist philosophy, is that all things are impermanent. 🙂

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Bruce Gerencser